Cool, balmy wind caresses my skin as I cross the empty parking lot in darkness. A thunderstorm graces the western horizon, sending flashes of lightning across the sky. It’s three in the morning, and I’m taking a 15 minute break outside.
I can smell the storm, sweet and earthy as it sucks humid air from the east while scooting north across the plains. The wind and the scent are familiar and it takes me back a few years to the river.
Down in the canyon cut over millions of years through white sandstone, the display I watch tonight only showed in narrow glimpses. Most often you sensed a storm long before you saw it, requiring a constant vigil on the weather.
In those days, I slept in a tent carefully situated clear of the century old cottonwoods lining the upper river banks. The winds from moderate storms often cleaved healthy branches from the massive trees making sleeping beneath them hazardous. Even now, as I stand at the edge of the field west of the parking lot, a strange urge draws me out to the grass and only with conscious effort do I remember that I don’t have a tent pitched out there. What looks like sage in the darkness are sparse patches of alfalfa and yellow clover in a cultivated field. The wind lacks that spicy tinge indicative of the arid, western plains.
I miss those nights out on patrol when I’d get up to check the canoes laid out on the bank, staked out to avoid being swept away by a sudden rise in the mighty Missouri’s flow. On those nights, standing at the edge of the water with the great black face of rock rising from the opposite bank, all I could hear was the deceptively gentle hiss of water running by, babbling over gravel bars and stones, sucking down into eddies and bubbling in upwellings. Wind gusts rustled the grass and sage, and in the distance, thunder rumbled, building with every flash that lit the sky.
Part of me remembers it clearly, and my mind is left confused. Is it 2020 or 2015? Am I in Montana or North Dakota? Then I look down at myself. In the afterglow of street lights, I see the lug-soled boots and 511 EMS pants with trauma shears and pens jammed into the pockets, not the shorts and sandals of a ranger on river patrol. My mind comes back to the present with great effort.
Sometimes, I feel like a has-been. At least I’m not a never-was. I wandered, saw some things, did some things and learned from life. When day-to-day becomes monotonous, I forget what I was…what I am, and moments like these remind me I still am that part, though it’s on an extended vacation. Some call it retirement, but I’ve not accepted that status yet.
My knees ache, and my back kinks now and then, but I still have that adventurous heart that wants to sleep out in the rain and hear the thunder in full, natural surround sound beyond the thin walls of a tent. After all, Febreze will never capture the real scent of a rainstorm on the prairie.
Reinforced with this knowledge that I’m still that park ranger, deep down inside, I cross back to the street with the light in my eyes, my sure step feeling the uneven ground as it has for thousands of steps over terrain more rough than this half-paved lot. Break time is over, but I take the past with me into the final hours of my shift, renewed in the confidence of who I am.